Red Dragon
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Red Dragon, the newest installment in the Hannibal Lecter series, is Hollywood's second go at Thomas Harris' best-selling novel of the same name. In 1986 Michael Mann wrote and directed a generally well-regarded version of the same story, under the title Manhunter. However, after the success of The Silence of the Lambs, with Anthony Hopkins delivering a bold and critically acclaimed performance, Manhunter became an orphan. It had little of the same atmosphere as Jonathan Demme's film, and it shared virtually nothing in common with the more blatantly over-the-top Hannibal (directed by Ridley Scott).

Manhunter was an overwhelmingly sad but compelling movie. It focused on the relationship of detective Will Graham to his family and how difficult this relationship became while he was chasing a serial killer. The process of creating a mindset similar to the killer's -- so that he could anticipate the killer's next move -- made him vulnerable to some of the same dark thoughts that guided Lecter.

Focusing on this conflict between Graham's sense of responsibility to society at large (his desire to stop additional families from being slaughtered) and his desire to live a secluded and secure life with his wife and son, Manhunter became an extraordinarily moving and compelling film. In spite of its pretentious artistic schemes (a holdover from Mann's work on the TV hit Miami Vice), the movie's overriding concern with Graham's inner life made it like no other crime drama. But it also made the movie a bad fit with the rest of the Hannibal Lecter saga.

So in an effort to keeping the franchise kicking, Universal Pictures has disregarded Manhunter entirely and filmed a new version of Harris' novel, handing the directing chores to Brett Ratner, whose primary claim to fame thus far (he's only 32 years old) is Rush Hour. The resulting film is effective in its own right, but it is much more the type of film that we might have expected Hollywood to deliver. While Manhunter built to an amazing climactic scene, Red Dragon drags out the ending with the currently in vogue method of killing and then resurrecting the villain. And in the process, the emphasis on Graham's inner life is largely glossed over. It's mentioned and discussed, but it now becomes a relatively minor point.

Amazingly, both movies have very nearly the same length. The original release version of Manhunter was 119 minutes and Red Dragon has a running time of 124 minutes. (The director's cut version of Manhunter, released in 2001 on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment, adds three minutes and has the exact same running time as Red Dragon.) But even while the running times are similar, Red Dragon includes several more sequences. For example, the entire pre-credits sequence is devoted to the capture of Lecter. Manhunter didn't deal with any of this background information, preferring to resolutely keep the focus on Graham. However, with Red Dragon, the filmmakers have a major star (Hopkins) in need of lines and screen time, so they bulked up the Lecter role (even providing a final scene that serves as a slide over into The Silence of the Lambs). In addition, the filmmakers now have Ralph Fiennes in the co-lead position as serial killer Francis Dolarhyde, so his troubled youth (in which he was mentally abused by his grandmother) receives considerable attention. And the effect leaves Graham's screen time squeezed and his significance reduced.

By sharing the lead among three different actors, the movie ends up shortchanging its greatest virtue, the Will Graham character, played by Edward Norton. Norton is one of the finest young male leading actors in America, but here he's no match for William Petersen in Manhunter (who now excels as Gil Grissom in the TV series C.S.I.). Petersen conveyed a much greater sense of urgency and pain. But Red Dragon plays fickle with Will Graham and instead shifts the focus toward the more blatantly action-prone Francis Dolarhyde, providing clichéd plot developments and gothic trappings that belabor the obvious and draw upon Psycho (among other movies). For example, one of the best scenes in Manhunter comes when Will Graham tries to explain to his son what has been happening in his head after his confrontation with Lecter. It's an amazing scene that conveys the horrible sadness in Graham's eyes. Red Dragon attempts no such scene.

Red Dragon is fascinated with evil, so it keeps the emphasis on Hopkins, whose performance here skirts dangerously toward parody, and on Fiennes, who captures his character's angst but little of his humanity (he's too elegant an actor to pull off this role). And therefore, while providing more background information about its lead villains, Red Dragon also offers much less understanding. For example, in Manhunter, when Francis Dolarhyde sees this girlfriend with another man, the movie conveys an enormous sadness (largely through actor Tom Noonan's eyes), and the movie provides this insight not to make us sympathize with the killer but to make us better appreciate the horrible loss of life that comes in its wake. Manhunter conveys the sorrow that goes along with murder, but Red Dragon has no time for such niceties. Instead, it emphasizes violence. When Dolarhyde, kidnaps a newspaper reporter in Manhunter, the following scene is relatively brief. In Red Dragon, the similar scene (with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the reporter) is drawn out, with considerable emphasis on pain. And in another scene, where Dolarhyde pulls a gun and shoots a victim at point blank range, Red Dragon gives us the scene -- a bullet through the forehead -- in close up, while Manhunter prefers to distance us from any vicarious pleasure meted out by the aesthetics of violence. Director Michael Mann places the camera on the other side of a hedge. All we see is a flash of white light on the killer's chest and face.

In many ways, Manhunter is the vastly superior movie; however Red Dragon is nonetheless a well-crafted thriller made in the blockbuster style preferred by Hollywood nowadays. Without the existence of Manhunter, Red Dragon might even seem like a serviceable addition to the Hannibal Lecter saga. (Whatever the case, it's a huge improvement over Hannibal.) It's a fast-paced horror movie cum crime thriller that provides its villains with plenty of opportunities to give the audience the willies. Judged on those terms, this is a largely successful movie. It will no doubt satisfy fans of the first two Hopkins-as-Lecter movies. But it's largely a mechanical exercise in extending the life of a franchise. Too much money was riding on this serial killer to let his killing spree stop. As such, Red Dragon plays its horror in broad, elaborate strokes, which have the effect of making the villains less threatening -- because they're less real. By keeping its villains less exotic, Manhunter became all the more frightening. It gave us killers you might run into on the street. Tom Noonan's Dolarhyde was a big, clumsy, shy, quiet-but-intense creation. Dolarhyde was much more believable when his background wasn't filled in for us in flowery detail, when his background was a mystery. But Red Dragon prefers simplistic psychological explanations, and this cheapens the characters.

I suspect most viewers who first watch Red Dragon and then see Manhunter will find the later to be somewhat slow. To be sure, Red Dragon is filled with more elaborate actions, and it certainly contains more pyrotechnics. But if you have a taste for movies that dare to provide their viewers with insights into the lives of their protagonists (as in the case of detective Will Graham's family life in Manhunter) instead of focusing on the more outrageous antics of the antagonists, then Manhunter should prove to be infinitely more satisfying. It's a flawed movie, but it's also one of the great crime thrillers of the past quarter century.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Universal Pictures
Movie Web site: Red Dragon



Photo credits: © 2002 Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.